The Origin of Brit Milah

Jewish circumcision
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Brit milah, also called, bris milah, means "covenant of circumcision." It is a Jewish ritual performed on a baby boy eight days after he is born. It involves the removal of the foreskin from the penis by a mohel, who is a person that has been trained to safely perform the procedure. The brit milah is also known as a "bris" and is one of the most well-known Jewish customs.

Biblical Origins of the Bris

The origin of brit milah can be traced back to Abraham, who was the founding patriarch of Judaism. According to Genesis, God appeared to Abraham when he was ninety-nine years old and commanded him to circumcise himself, his thirteen-year-old son Ishmael and all the other men with him as a sign of the covenant between Abraham and God.

And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (Genesis 17:9-14)

By circumcising himself and all the men with him, Abraham established the practice of brit milah, which was thenceforth performed on all newborn boys after eight days of life. Originally men were commanded to circumcise their sons themselves, but eventually, this duty was transferred to the mohelim (plural of mohel). Circumcising the infants so soon after birth allows for quick healing of the wound, and also renders the procedure immemorable. 

Circumcision in Other Ancient Cultures

There is evidence to suggest that the removal of the foreskin from the penis was a custom practiced in other ancient cultures as well as Judaism. The Canaanites and Egyptians, for instance, circumcised their males. However, while Jews circumcised babies the Canaanites and Egyptians circumcised their boys at the onset of puberty as a rite that initiated them into manhood.

Why Circumcision?

There is no definitive answer as to why God choose circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Some think that marking the penis in this way symbolizes the ultimate submission to God's will. According to this interpretation, the penis could be seen as a symbol of human desires and urges.

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Pelaia, Ariela. "The Origin of Brit Milah." Learn Religions, Sep. 27, 2021, Pelaia, Ariela. (2021, September 27). The Origin of Brit Milah. Retrieved from Pelaia, Ariela. "The Origin of Brit Milah." Learn Religions. (accessed June 10, 2023).